Friday, July 25, 2014

Jeff Benedict: SI writer sheds light on Jabari Parker's Mormon faith and bond with Coach K in a Deseret News Exclusive

By Jeff Benedict, For the Deseret News

Published: Wed, Feb. 19 10:05 a.m. MST

 Jabari Parker and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski are featured on this week's cover of Sports Illustrated.

Jabari Parker and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski are featured on this week's cover of Sports Illustrated.

(Courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

Read the Sports Illustrated cover story: The education of Jabari Parker

During his junior year at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy, Jabari Parker received his first letter from Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Every few months he got another. Each contained praise, encouragement and promises. Each was handwritten. “It’s my way of telling him, ‘This is me. I am doing this,’ ” Krzyzewski said. “And you can count on what I say. When you sign your name it means more. It takes giving your word to a different level.”

Parker saved the letters in a shoebox. He still has them. They represent just one of many unique things Krzyzewski did to recruit him. Coach K also sent handwritten letters to Jabari’s parents Sonny and Lola. He made a point to teach Jabari some technical aspect of the game every time he visited the Parker home. He even went out of his way to compliment Parker’s commitment to his faith, and promised to make it easy for him to actively participate in Mormonism at Duke.

In December 2012, Parker announced on national television that he’d be attending Duke. It helped that Duke is a perennial national title contender. But Coach K is a master recruiter because he understands people and he’s genuine. Still, the truth is that he didn’t have to work that hard to land Parker. Parker had his heart set on playing for Coach K even before the first recruiting letter arrived.

As a young teen Parker kept quotes from UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden in his backpack. He read stories about The Wizard of Westwood and the way he melded lessons about life with the game of basketball. “I wondered what it would be like to play for him,” Parker said.

Wooden passed away after Parker’s freshman year. By then his dream was to play for Coach K — the greatest coach of the modern era. In 2011, Krzyzewski surpassed his mentor Bobby Knight for the most coaching victories in college basketball history with over 900. He’s led Duke to 11 Final Fours and four national championships. In the summers he coaches the greatest players in the world — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony — on the USA basketball team.

“I consider it a blessing and a great privilege to play for Coach K and learn from him,” Parker said. “The basketball tradition at Duke is very rich.”

In many respects, Parker’s union with Krzyzewski has the makings of a Hollywood script. In route to NBA stardom, the kid that Sports Illustrated dubbed “The Best High School Basketball Player Since LeBron James” goes off to be tutored by a legendary coach at a school with gothic archways, stone buildings and perfectly manicured gardens.

Even before the regular season started, Coach K took Parker and his team to West Point to learn about discipline and precision; to the 9/11 Memorial to remember the importance of loyalty and patriotism; to Harlem’s Apollo Theater and to a Broadway performance of “Motown” to enrich culture; and to New York City’s famous Rucker Park to play on the same court where greats Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius “Dr. J” Erving once played.

I’ve had a first-hand look at how the story has played out from there. Last summer Coach Krzyzewski agreed to let me follow him and Parker through Parker’s freshman year. Over the past six months I’ve spent a lot of time in Durham. I’ve also followed the team on the road. But mainly I’ve observed and interviewed Krzyzewski and Parker. This week in Sports Illustrated I tell their story.

Jabari and I were quite close before I started this project. We became fast friends when I profiled him at age 17 for Sports Illustrated. One of the things we share in common is our religion. More important, we share the same approach to it.

“I don’t emphasize my religion,” Parker said. “The truth is I’m not really different from my teammates. I just try to be a good person and they love me for who I am.”

It’s an approach that has earned Coach K’s respect. “Jabari doesn’t publicize his faith,” Krzyzewski said. “He doesn’t throw it in your face. He just lives his religion by example. His family is the same way. Those are strong people.”

I didn’t know Krzyzewski when this project began. But I consider him a friend now. Some of my most enjoyable moments were in his office discussing things other than basketball — his Polish Catholic roots; his family; and the lessons he learned as a cadet at West Point.

“If it was up to me I wouldn’t have chosen West Point because I was afraid of it,” Krzyzewski told me.

But he didn’t have a choice. His mother was a cleaning lady; his father an elevator operator. Neither of them graduated from high school. They were first-generation descendants of Polish immigrants. “My parents didn’t understand West Point,” Krzyzewski said. “But they understood ‘Presidents have gone there. And my son can go there?’ It was a no-brainer for them.”

The Academy pushed Krzyzewski out of his comfort zone. He had to learn to swim; to tie a knot; to put up a tent; to march in formation; and to absorb intense yelling and strict commands.

“I wanted to quit,” he said. “But I was brought up to never quit. My experience at West Point made me who I am. I had to learn to do things I would never choose to do.”

In a similar sense, Krzyzewski has spent the past six months taking Parker out of his comfort zone and pushing him harder than he’s ever been pushed. He’s taught Parker the importance of relentless preparation, conditioning and precision. He's taught him to be a professional.

“I came to Duke to be pushed,” Parker said. “I wanted to experience the pressure and the challenge of playing here. Under Coach K, I have developed maturity on and off the court.”

At the same time, Parker and Krzyzewski have developed a relationship that runs deeper than coach and player.

“I love Jabari,” Krzyzewski said. “In some respects I wonder who he would be if he wasn’t a basketball player. He is a beautiful kid and unbelievably humane. He doesn’t have a selfish bone in his body.”

Read the Sports Illustrated cover story: The education of Jabari Parker

Jeff Benedict is a special features writer for Sports Illustrated and the co-author of the New York Times bestseller The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com

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1. Chris B
Salt Lake City, UT,
Feb. 19, 2014

"I don’t emphasize my religion,” Parker said. “The truth is I’m not really different from my teammates. I just try to be a good person and they love me for who I am.”

It’s an approach that has earned Coach K’s respect. “Jabari doesn’t publicize his faith,” Kryzyewski said. “He doesn’t throw it in your face"

A lot of people could learn from his example.

2. Cletus from Coalville
Coalville, UT,
Feb. 19, 2014

And to think, Jabari could instead have been a Ute and then that means he would of won nba most valuable player by now because he would of been a prestegous Ute with a awesome road record!

Boy has Jabari missed out LOL!

Go Utes!

3. caleb in new york
Glen Cove, NY,
Feb. 19, 2014

I'm confident that if Jabari had come to BYU, he would have helped lead BYU to victory over Portland at Portland.

4. Jamescmeyer
Midwest City, USA, OK,
Feb. 19, 2014

@Rational:

No kidding. It's disappointing that there are a number of people who go around this site aggressively pushing opposition to anything true and good. One of the reasons I try to stand and participate in commenting is because of this sort of disruptive, hypocritical intolerance.

5. 1covey
Salt Lake City, UT,
Feb. 19, 2014

It is wonderful to see coaches like "Coach K". Others should follow his example.